Greed Is Not Good, But It Can Help Make Fiction Interesting

We live in an age of greed. Avaricious CEOs, bankers, hedge-fund guys, politicians, lobbyists, corporate lawyers, media moguls, sports-team owners, and others. Many don’t even do a good job for their huge salaries and other compensation. Many exploit their employees. Many price-gouge their customers. Many don’t pay their fair share of taxes. Many…make me think of greedy characters in literature.

Those fictional people can be painful to read about, but greed can drive a novel’s plot and help make the book compelling. Also, readers angry at the greed in a book can always slam it shut with a satisfying “thump” while saying: “That hurts, doesn’t it Mr. Fictional Rich Guy who I just flattened between the front and back covers.” Of course, Kindle users need an alternate plan when trying to crush covetous characters…

One of fiction’s countless greedy protagonists is attorney Mickey Haller of Michael Connelly’s cleverly plotted The Lincoln Lawyer, which I just read. Haller tends to charge a lot — and is very insistent on collecting that money — when defending clients who include many a bad guy. But he has a conscience beneath his materialism and cynicism, illustrating that at least some worshipers of the almighty dollar can also have their good points. Heck, even the profit-obsessed Scrooge experienced an epiphany in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.

Moving to an equally famous literary work, we have Jay Gatsby amassing a fortune in the bootlegging biz and then flaunting that wealth in a very public way to woo Daisy Buchanan in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. I suppose there are worse motives for making lots of money…

There are avaricious businessmen in Emile Zola’s work, too. Greedy coal-mine ownership leads to a dramatic strike in Germinal, and ruthlessly ambitious department-store magnate Octave Mouret is an early Wal-Mart type pushing small neighborhood stores out of business in Au Bonheur des Dames.

Money-grasping politicians also abound in literature, with one example being Tiny Duffy — the lieutenant governor from Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men who’s quite comfortable with corruption and kickbacks.

Speaking of corruption, Joey Berglund in Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom becomes a subcontractor in a scheme to supply spare parts for outdated supply trucks during The Iraq War. Greed doesn’t get much worse than when it involves war profiteering.

Heck, wealth-seeking characters commit crimes in many a novel. For instance, drug lord Plato orders the murder of anyone standing in the way of enlarging his fortune in Lee Child’s Jack Reacher thriller 61 Hours. Indeed, greedy crooks — often of the white-collar variety — abound in thrillers, mysteries, detective novels, and other kinds of fiction.

Greed can also draw fictional characters out of their hometowns to seek their fortunes elsewhere. Some flocked to New Zealand during that country’s 1860s West Coast Gold Rush in Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries. Others raced to the snowy north during the 1890s Klondike Gold Rush that Jack London experienced personally and then included in works such as The Call of the Wild.

Or how about marrying at least partly because the spouse is wealthy? That was certainly one reason the vile Gilbert Osmond wed Isabel Archer in Henry James’ The Portrait of a Lady, and why Morris Townsend wooed Catherine Sloper in James’ Washington Square. Also, the intended husbands’ income and “station in life” greatly determined the “romantic” choices made by social climber Undine Spragg in Edith Wharton’s The Custom of the Country.

A variation of the above is when, in the back story of Jane Austen’s Persuasion, Anne Elliot is pressured by her snobby/materialistic father and the status-conscious Lady Russell to not marry the man she loves: Frederick Wentworth, who is “beneath” the Elliot family’s financial level.

One potential facet of greediness is miserliness, and that’s certainly the case with Felix — father of the titular character in Honore de Balzac’s Eugenie Grandet. He is a wealthy man so tight with his lucre that he partly warps the life of his daughter.

Another miser is Silas Marner, but he’s a goodhearted man whose neurotic saving of most of his earnings stems more from being betrayed by a close friend than from any moral flaw. When Marner’s life takes a turn for the better in George Eliot’s novel, he is no longer fixated on money.

Then there are depictions of greedy Jewish characters that have led to accusations of anti-Semitism. Examples include Fagin in Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist, Isaac of York in Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe, and Shylock the moneylender in William Shakespeare’s play The Merchant of Venice. Some of those characters are more nuanced than their literary reputations; for instance, Isaac has a kindhearted side — and Scott’s portrayal of Isaac’s daughter Rebecca is quite non-stereotypical for its time.

And what is slavery but a toxic mix of greed and racism? (Some biased cops in Baltimore and elsewhere know all about the latter.) We see this mix in novels such as Alex Haley’s Roots, Toni Morrison’s Beloved, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Alexandre Dumas’ Georges, Geraldine Brooks’ March, William Styron’s The Confessions of Nat Turner, and in a chapter of Neil Gaiman’s American Gods.

Who are some of the greedy characters you remember most in literature?

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